Tim Matheson Interview: "Virgin River" Star Talks Surprising Season 4
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Actor and director Tim Matheson is best known for voicing the title character in the 1960s animated Jonny Quest TV series, portraying Eric “Otter” Stratton in the 1978 comedy film National Lampoon’s Animal House and the recurring role of Vice President John Hoynes in the NBC political drama series The West Wing. Other film roles include Yours, Mine and Ours, How to Commit Marriage, Magnum Force, 1941, Fletch, Drop Dead Fred, A Very Brady Sequel and 6 Balloons.
Other television appearances include Window on Main Street, Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons, The Virginian, Bonanza, Burn Notice, Entourage, Hart of Dixie, Madam Secretary, This Is Us and Evil. Matheson can currently be seen portraying Vernon “Doc” Mullins in the romantic drama streaming series Virgin River, which premiered on Netflix on December 6, 2019. The fourth season of Virgin River is scheduled to be released on July 20, 2022, and also stars Alexandra Breckenridge, Martin Henderson and Annette O’Toole.
"It’s like a whole new world because Doc didn’t have any children to his knowledge."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tim, please give a short synopsis of Virgin River and your character, Vernon “Doc” Mullins.
Tim Matheson: Sure. Virgin River is about a small town in Humboldt County up in the Redwoods. It has incredible beauty. Most of the people who live there have come there just to get away from some kind of pain or heartache or loss to try and redeem themselves and turn their lives around. They’re a very eccentric bunch and a lot of fun and going through a lot of emotions.
My character is Doc Mullins, who sort of escaped the world of big business hospitals. He was running a hospital in Seattle, Washington, he just decided it was not fun, and he wanted to get back to treating people one-on-one. So he moved to Virgin River, set up a clinic, and he’s the only doctor in town. The patients are all his friends mostly. He’s just sort of a healer. He wants to help people.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: At the end of season three, Hope McCrea suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Tim Matheson: Yeah.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But showrunner Sue Tenney has said that Hope’s portrayer Annette O’Toole is returning for the fourth season.
Tim Matheson: (laughs) Absolutely and great to have her back.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What’s next for Hope, Doc, Mel and Jack and the others living in Virgin River?
Tim Matheson: With Hope and Doc, the backstory is that they were married some 20 years ago, and he cheated on her, broke her heart and broke the relationship. They have not been together since then. He’s been trying to redeem himself and their marriage. He was getting really close until she got injured. So the question now is, how has this traumatic brain injury affected her and their relationship and his hopes of getting closer to her and earning her love again?
Also in town is Denny, who is Doc’s grandson he didn’t know he had from a brief relationship he had in college. Denny is there to spend time with Doc and get to know his grandfather. It’s kind of remarkable to all of a sudden discover that you have a son who had a child. It’s like a whole new world because Doc didn’t have any children to his knowledge. So there’s that. Then there’s also the changes in the clinic. We’ve got a new doctor. We brought a new doctor on board, Cameron, who’s sort of a partner in the firm and helping out so that Doc has more time to spend with Hope and Denny and other aspects of his life.
With Mel and Jack, they are going through a pregnancy. She’s several months pregnant. So it’s that part of their relationship that’s challenging. Because of an in vitro fertilization, they don’t know if the father is Mark, Mel’s dead husband, or if it’s Jack’s baby. So that’s an issue for both of them. The stories of Brady and Brie continue. Brady is flirting with staying on the right side of the law and always being tempted or threatened to be on the other side of the law.
One of my favorites is Preacher. He’s trying to straighten out his life. There was a big threat that went around. Paige had to leave, and he’s covering for her. So that has to be sorted out, too.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The fans are rooting for Mel and Jack to get married.
Tim Matheson: (laughs) Yeah. I think we all are.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Doc also has some medical issues of his own to deal with like losing his eyesight.
Tim Matheson: I know people who have age-related macular degeneration, and they move on and are fine with their lives. You do have to get shots into your eyeballs like once a month to help with that. So that’s something Doc is going through and seems to be handling pretty well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve worked with Annette O’Toole in years past?
Tim Matheson: Oh, yeah. I think the last show I did before Animal House was a television episode of a show called What Really Happened to the Class of ’65? And it was filmed in 1977, I believe. She was on that. It was an anthology show. But I knew her because I did a movie at Universal called Almost Summer, and her then boyfriend was Bruno Kirby. We all became good friends. So I’d worked with her on two different occasions, but I’d known her since the mid-70s, so that’s quite a while.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I thought it was interesting also that you (as Rebecca’s father) and Alexandra Breckenridge (as Sophie) both portrayed characters on This Is Us, but you two didn’t work together.
Tim Matheson: Right. We didn’t work on that show together because we were in different time periods. But it was such a treat that that came up for me. It’s such a wonderful cast and crew and group to work with. I was very pleased and happy to play that part even though my character was a bit of a jerk at times.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: He was, but he did redeem himself in the end (laughs). I think This Is Us was truly one of the better quality shows on television.
Tim Matheson: Oh, my gosh, wasn’t it? It was so special. They took such great care with everything, and it was just so exciting to be a part of that. Working with Mandy and Milo, it was as good as it gets.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you decide to begin this acting journey, Tim?
Tim Matheson: Well, I have always wanted to be a actor even since I was six or seven years old. In the old days, we had a television where if something went wrong with it, they took the picture tube out, then picked it up and worked on it at the shop. We had a little console TV out in our living room. I would get inside and stick my head out into the open space where the TV was and do little skits and things. I was in TV then, and I always wanted to be.
When the opportunity came up for me, it was just happenstance because I lived in Burbank, and my mom worked for a company. I think her boss had a son who had done a couple of things. He had an agent, and he went up for a part he didn’t get. So they asked if she would submit me for that part. I was submitted, and I did well enough to be considered for the lead, but I’d never done anything, so they didn’t hire me for that. But then I got a one-day part on a show, and then I got a two-day part on a show, and then mid-season, they changed the format and added my character as a regular, so I did another five or so episodes with Robert Young and people of that generation. It was black and white, so that’s where I started. I loved it before, and I still love it. I’m so fortunate to still be doing something that is not work but is just a joy every day.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You hear such horrible stories about child or teen actors, especially during that time period. How was it for you?
Tim Matheson: You know, I have never been approached or had any improper advances in my entire life on set or in movies even when I was a kid. However, I was molested in church but never ever there. I think I was lucky when I was starting because I was a journeyman actor. I had a day here, a couple of lines there, maybe three or four days on My Three Sons or something. So I was learning in the trenches. I wasn’t starring in a show or wasn’t the lead character in a show.
I think a lot of those kids who were leads when the show all of a sudden ended, they didn’t know who they were anymore. I remember a guy named Jay North, who starred in Dennis the Menace. I think it ran for two seasons, but all of a sudden, it was cancelled. Then here comes all of our little auditions we’d have for different shows, and Jay North shows up again. You could tell he was uncomfortable because he’d been the star on a television series. He played the lead character.
I think Jay handled it okay, but I think a lot of the kids who had troubles with drugs or alcohol or emotional issues were in a career at an age where you’re not really mature enough to know how to handle adversity. So that, I think, is the issue that takes a strong parental role to help you through those kinds of things. My mother was great. She said, “Whatever you want to do. You want to play baseball? You want to take acting classes? We’ll do that.” So she was right behind me and helped me. She was so supportive and energetic in helping me with my career. I was very lucky.
When I was 16, I played the voice of Jonny Quest in a cartoon series. That was my first hint at like real success. Here I was starring in a network cartoon that was on at night. This was a dramatic show, so it was pretty exciting. I met and worked with so many of the great voice actors, Mel Blanc, Don Messick, Daws Butler, Vic Perrin, people who were consummate actors in their own right and were not stars in the voice world in cartoon world. Mel Blanc, I think, was one of the finest actors I’ve ever worked with, and he voiced Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and all those Looney Tunes characters. That was Mel. It was amazing to me how he could create a character with just his voice, and you could see the character. So I did a whole series with him called Young Samson. It was just a treat to work with somebody like that and to learn the ropes from somebody like that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the early days, did you keep thinking and hoping that your big break could happen anyday?
Tim Matheson: Always. I remember going over to Universal and auditioning for Leave It to Beaver. I got the part, and they said the part was going to recur in three different episodes. I thought, “This is it! I’ve done it!” I remember that after I did the first episode, Jerry Mathers invited me to a party at his house. I was 13 or 14 and so was Jerry. It was a cool party at his parent’s house. I just thought, “Man, this is Hollywood at its best!” But, I couldn’t continue doing Leave It to Beaver. Some other job came up, and there was a conflict. I left that show for a better part. But it was all that. When I got Leave It to Beaver, I thought, “Now, I’ve hit a home run!”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I became a fan when I saw Yours, Mine and Ours. I believe that was 1968, and you were an excellent young actor.
Tim Matheson: That’s right, yeah. Thank you very much. That was my first big break. Gosh, I didn’t have to have my mother on the set anymore, so I must’ve been 18. But it was Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, and I had to audition for that part like 10 times and do a screen test. Lucille Ball couldn’t have been nicer to me and more supportive and just so gracious. She was tough though. If you worked with Lucy, she demanded your best and everyone’s best. You had to be prepared. You had to know your dialogue. You had to know how to play a scene. If you didn’t speak up, she’d look at the director and go, “I can’t hear him!” (laughs)
But Lucy demanded and got the best, and I learned so much from being with her and Henry Fonda. They were two sides of a coin. Lucy had developed this movie for herself, and it was her company that was making it. Henry was just starring in the movie. He didn’t have anything to do with producing the movie. I remember the first day we were shooting with Henry. At the very beginning of the movie, we had a scene in the living room with me and my siblings. Henry got up and walked to the door and had a speech he was going to deliver at the door. I remember looking at it as an acting lesson and going, “How would I do that? If I were this character, how would I play those lines at the door?” I couldn’t figure it out.
When Henry got up and walked to the door, he turned around and as simple and honestly as he could, he just did the lines. I thought, “Oh, my God! That’s a movie star!” He was just himself in that role. I think Spencer Tracy used to say, “Walk in the room. Hit your mark. Look them in the eye and tell the truth.” That’s good acting, you know. That’s what Henry did. He didn’t push it. He was just so calm and so focused. It was a big lesson for me. Lucy played a larger-than-life comedic scene, so I got to be there for that, too, to see how she did it. It was a master class in what a movie star is.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you want a role that was just completely different when you auditioned for Animal House?
Tim Matheson: Totally. Absolutely. You got that so right. Nothing like that had ever been done. It was as close as you could get to sketch comedy, and I was in sketch comedy. For the seven years before that, I had been playing in mostly westerns back in the day when they used to do them. I think The Quest with Kurt Russell was my last series. I was just playing this nice guy kind of boy-next-door character. They were just so dreadfully boring. There was nothing exciting about it.
So I took an improv class and started studying improv for the better part of a year. Once I knew Animal House was coming up, I battered down the door to get an audition. They didn’t want me to come in and audition. I pulled favors from the Studio. I said, “Just get me in the door. Just give me a shot.” I happened to be lucky enough to get an audition with Peter Riegert who played Boon, and he was an improv actor. I was an improv actor, so we just hit it off. We played the scene, and it looked like we’d known each other forever. So I was doubly lucky to have been teamed up with him.
Fortunately, I got that part. And yeah, it changed my life because it was so unique. I got to work with John Belushi, John Vernon and Donald Sutherland, just really the cream of the crop. It was a very wonderful experience.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why were you let go from The West Wing?
Tim Matheson: You know, I’ll tell you. What happened was, I was recurring. I was not a regular, and I was sort of a bad guy and always caused trouble. I didn’t look at it that way, but that’s how the audience perceived it. I’d been on the show for four seasons, and I got a phone call from Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme, who were the producing, directing and writing stars of the show. They said, “We’ve got good news and bad news.” I said, “Okay. What the good news?” They said, “The good news is we’re writing two or three scripts that you’re going to be featured in. But the bad news is you’re going to leave the office of the Vice President in the script at the end of the season. We are leaving the show, too.” They both were departing the show at that point.
They wanted to leave it on a cliffhanger like if a real vice president was still in office, then when Jed (the president) was having an illness, I would’ve become the acting president. The Speaker of the House is third in line for the presidency. It’s like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and then Nancy Pelosi. So that’s what they were going for. They wanted John Goodman, who played the Speaker of the House, to come in and be a Republican president with all these guys in order to create a lot of conflict. And that was that.
I came back a few times after that. They did ask me a bunch of times to direct because I was doing a lot more directing. I did direct one of the final episodes in the last season, which was kind of like a homecoming in some ways. But many of the regular cast members were gone at that point.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you started your directing career, did you pattern yourself after or use any attributes from directors you admired?
Tim Matheson: I stole from all of them. Most directors don’t have an opportunity to work with other directors or see how they work. But as an actor, I’ve been on the set with 100 different directors. So I know what I thought was good directing. I know what I thought was bad directing, and I tried to avoid that. I’ve worked with Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. Clint said something that I’d never forgotten. It’s the kind of thing you’ve learned as a director from guys like Clint. I asked him once if he wanted to run the lines to make sure we were okay. He said, “No. There’s something special about the first time you say those lines, and I like that to be on camera.” I was like, “Okay. Wow.” Then when we did the scene, he was so good.
Again, he was like a movie star, so simple, honest and real and perhaps one of the best listeners I’ve ever worked with. When Clint looked you in the eye, you could see he was tuned in. In one scene, he changed a word that affected my dialogue, and I changed it to match his dialogue. Then he double changed it around. It’s like something that nobody will notice, but I know what he did, and he knows that I know what he did. Just on another level, it was fun to work with him because you could see how skilled he was. And basically, even though he didn’t direct that movie, he directed that movie. He was Clint Eastwood, you know, pretty formidable but couldn’t have been nicer. He was always nice to his fans. If somebody stopped him and wanted an autograph, he’d certainly oblige. Then he’d move on. He didn’t chitchat a lot, but he was just very gracious, which is a big lesson about how you deal with your public because you’re not there without them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So true. We lost the remarkable James Caan. You directed him in Las Vegas?
Tim Matheson: I did. God bless him. I directed him in Las Vegas, the show that Josh Duhamel and he did over at NBC. He was a treat. He was so gracious. You didn’t call him James. I think I first called him Mr. Caan. He goes, “Jimmy.” The only trouble you had with James Caan was everybody just wanted to hear all his stories. Once he started, he just kept going. It’s like somebody said, “Hey Jimmy, we’ve got to shoot this. We’re dying here.” (laughs) But he was such a pro, so relaxed and so wonderful to work with. It was a real treat. I was beginning my directing career at that point, and he was very kind and generous to me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It’s just amazing that you’ve been in the entertainment business for over 60 years. I feel so old (laughs).
Tim Matheson: (laughs) A lot of that keeps you young. Plus, I’m not working nine to five 50 weeks a year. On Virgin River, we’re now doing 12 episodes. I’ll work from mid-July to mid-November, and then I’m off. So even at full speed and full-time, it’s still a part-time job (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Virgin River has already been renewed for a fifth season. I assume you’re in it for the long haul?
Tim Matheson: Oh, yeah. Listen. It’s one of those lovely things when the network and the audience really respond to a show. They like the characters, and they like the setting. They like the heart of the show. Alex Breckenridge and Mark Henderson are certainly the heart of the show. They’re phenomenal together and fun to work with, so it’s always a treat to go back to work and hang out with them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What do you enjoy when you’re not working?
Tim Matheson: I just like to explore Vancouver. We’re shooting up in Vancouver, British Columbia. I’ve been in Vancouver doing television and movies since the mid-90s, and I’ve seen this business grow up here. I was either acting or directing, but all that time when I was directing, there wasn’t a second to breathe. So if I had a weekend off, I’d be working on the coming week preparing the work.
As an actor, I wouldn’t go skiing because I didn’t want to hurt myself or risk hurting myself and injuring the production. So in all those years, I’d never gone up to Whistler. My wife and I have a place up here now, so maybe in the winter time or early spring we’ll come back up and spend some time skiing and sightseeing. It is so beautiful. I could be a real tourist up here, get in a boat and go visit the local islands around Vancouver. There’s good food here and people are nice. It’s like a small town in a big city, and it’s not that big of a city. So it’s quite wonderful.
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